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The kitchen or the battlefield? Women's experiences of violence and 'suicide terrorism' in the Palestinian territories

January 29, 2014 at 4:26 pm


According to Egyptian Islamist Zaynab al-Ghazali, the ‘ideal Muslim woman must work out, with God’s help, priorities for her life: Should she stay in the kitchen or should she go out into the battlefield?’ (quoted in Cook 2001: 88). In the context of national-liberation struggles across the globe, we hear much about what is loosely described as ‘terrorism’. In some cases, acts of ‘terror’ take the form of suicide bombings. The ‘terrorist’ or ‘martyr’ is reviled by many but celebrated as a hero by others. What we tend to hear less about is the gender dimension of ‘suicide terrorism’. In this article, with reference to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, I will explore the various roles of women in the problematic and emotionalized area of ‘suicide terrorism’ and its accompanying layers of violence.

Several background factors need to be considered in order to understand why a woman living under Israeli occupation or control, despite the restrictions of a traditional society, may choose or be persuaded into an act of violent self-sacrifice. Women’s daily lives in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are conducted in an environment of relentless and frequently indiscriminate violence. Many women have lost family members or seen their homes destroyed. The imbalance of power between Palestinians and Israelis has meant that conventional warfare is out of the question and therefore Palestinians have been forced to seek alternative methods to wage their anti-colonial struggle. Their ‘recourse to violence finds justification in the militant Islamist ideology and its concept of jihad‘ (Ismail 2006: 136).

The lack of viable alternatives has persuaded some Palestinians to resort to the desperate measure of suicide bombing, regarded by some as an unsurprising response to oppression. Their perspective, as one of the unjust victimization of a disempowered people, has given some women the confidence to embark upon extreme action and, since 2001, a small number of women have chosen to martyr themselves, thus destabilizing the notion of ‘appropriate roles’ in a deeply conservative society.

It is necessary to understand how such narratives are constructed and justified and, by exploring women’s experiences of violent conflict, I will argue that, far from being solely a male endeavour, resistance is a necessary method of survival in a situation in which the powerlessness of women and men is constantly reiterated. It is a complex and sensitive area and my objective here is to ‘deconstruct the insidious and pervasive effects and mechanisms of violence and terror, underscoring how it operates on the level of lived experience’ (Green 1999: 58).

Lives of violence and hopelessness

The dilemma of whether a Muslim woman should stay in the kitchen or go into the battlefield has been explored by Stowasser who suggests that, although the Muslim woman has traditionally been regarded as the preserver of continuity, against ‘the onslaught of…hostile armies without and within…[she is seen] as a soldier fighting a holy war for the sake of Islamic values’ (1987: 277). This raises questions, of how the role of women is idealized in Palestinian society; and also about the role that religion plays, whether as a marker of cultural authenticity or a motivation for militant action that transcends gender boundaries.

In Islamic history, there is little evidence that women played a significant role in the waging of war. A few women are mentioned by name as having been present on the battlefield during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad; for example, Umm Umara ‘is said to have gone out to help the wounded during the Battle of Uhud (626)…but then took up a sword’ herself. There ‘were four women with her [including one] who was pregnant at the time…and they fought alongside the men’ (Cook 2008: 38). In his discussion of the subject of jihad in classical Islam, Cook suggests that women ‘were aware of the high spiritual value accorded to the male (jihad) fighter, and wanted to participate in the fighting’ (2008: 39). On the whole, however, their aspirations have been thwarted as men sought to protect them from the ravages of war.

Interestingly, in the modern era, some radical Muslims ‘have been attempting to legitimize women’s participation in jihad’ (Cook 2008: 46). Is this because they recognize that women have as much right as men to participate in the liberation of the nation or because there are not enough men? A woman’s right to join men on the battlefield ‘can only be seen as a radical change in Islam and, as such, has been treated with suspicion by Muslim conservatives’ (Cook 2008: 47). In the Palestinian case, as the Israeli occupation tends to intrude into every aspect of private life, it has become unrealistic to try and shield women from violence.

However, women are by no means only victims. While ‘gender equality and social justice are embedded in the Qur’an’ (Badran 2003: 6), the issue of male authority remains pertinent. As Mahmood argues, the ‘task of realizing piety’ places women in conflict with authority and yet the rationale behind this conflict ‘cannot be understood only by reference to arguments for gender equality or resistance to male authority’ (119-20). For Palestinian women who engage in militant activities, male permission has traditionally been required. According to an academic at Birzeit University in the West Bank, most women suicide bombers went to their leaders to ask to become martyrs. ‘Most of the women suicide bombers were not sent by Hamas’, she said. ‘They had no vision of how to include women in the national resistance, but women played an important role: watching, carrying messages but not being militants. Women asked why women could not become militants – because she has to be accompanied; men endure difficult times but women could not do this without a guardian – this was Hamas’s position’.2

However, in more desperate times, it appears that an increasing number of women are asserting their right to act on behalf of ‘the nation’. The pressures resulting from the second intifada, which began in September 2000, ‘have taken their toll on the family unit…particularly in terms of its authority structure and ability to provide order, discipline, security, and – perhaps most importantly – protection’ (Roy 2007: 49). Thus, the image of the woman, safe in her kitchen, has been shattered; the home is no longer a place of security; there are instances, over the past ten years, where women have been killed in their own homes, mostly accidental victims caught in the crossfire. Therefore, some women see that they have no choice but to leave the kitchen and enter the battlefield.

For Amina,3 a 42-year old mother of six children in Balata refugee camp in Nablus, the increasing levels of violence and accompanying lack of safety inspires anger and provokes a few people, including women, to engage in activities which previously would not have been considered.4 Souad, a 30-year old journalist who studied at al-Najah University in Nablus, said that the Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements had a strong influence on women students. The Jihad movement sent women on martyrdom operations, she said; they see the girl and the boy in the same way, they see it as a higher form of jihad; to choose to die for Palestinians under Israeli occupation is the bravest thing.5

Women’s activism and resistance

In the 1920s and 1930s, Palestinian women participated in mass demonstrations against the British colonial regime; their participation was legitimized by Islamic cultural norms. After the nakbah (catastrophe) of 1948, which resulted in the creation of the state of Israel, women became an important component of resistance, as the dispersed Palestinian nation struggled for survival and against the obliteration of its identity. By the late 1960s and 1970s, Palestinian women in the occupied territories (the West Bank and Gaza Strip) and the Diaspora were becoming more active in politics; a small number were also involved in militant action as members of the national liberation movement, fighting to regain the homeland. With the start of the first intifada in 1987, women consciously placed themselves at the forefront of communal, mostly non-violent action to resist the occupation of their land.

The second intifada witnessed increasing levels of violence and the entry of women into more controversial forms of protest. Umm Anas in Hebron whose son, a Hamas fighter, had been killed by the Israelis, said that ‘a woman is entitled to become a shahida (female martyr). It is not violence against Israel; one cannot call it violence. If a woman kills herself, it is because she had a bad experience with Israel. There is no conflict between religious and secular groups; when Israel attacks, everyone – whatever their ideology – unites to defend the community’.6

While many of their activities are uncontroversial, in the sense that they conform to traditional understandings of ‘a woman’s place’, some women have started to make choices that appear threatening to Palestinian society’s sense of appropriate roles, and I would like to look now at some of the reasons they are making these choices and why their decisions, on the one hand, may seem to challenge the norms and values of society but, on the other, may suggest communal solidarity in the face of overwhelming odds.

Although, out of the many suicide attacks against Israeli military and civilian targets carried out by Palestinians since 2001, very few have been by women and even fewer of these have been orchestrated by Islamist groups, these acts have been subjected to intense scrutiny. For the purposes of this article, I am seeking to understand these women’s actions from the perspective of liberation and agency. Some scholars have argued that Palestinian women are using suicide bombing as a method of challenging the patriarchal structures of their society. Beyler asserts that female suicide bombers ‘appear to be one of the most extreme forms of exploitation of women, who become objectified, even if they think that their choice is subjective…they become weapons in the hands of the men of the terrorist organizations’ (2003: 7). By dismissing these women as ‘exploited’ or the ‘tools of men’, this type of analysis fails to take seriously either women’s own agency or the pressures of the conflict. In reality, the situation is more complex.

Berko and Erez identify several ‘pathways to terrorism’; some women, they argue, act ‘out of religious conviction’ or feel the need to avenge the death of a family member (2005: 606), while, for others, it is seen as a way ‘to rebel against a strict patriarchal regime’; a final group regards it as ‘an opportunity to resolve a personal or familial problem’ (Berko and Erez 2007: 503). An example of the second ‘type’ was 29-year old lawyer Hanadi Jaradat who killed herself in a restaurant in Haifa in October 2003 ‘in revenge for the killing of her brother and her fiancé by the Israeli security forces’, but also ‘in revenge for all the crimes Israel had perpetrated in the West Bank’ (Hassan). This indicates another motive for female self-sacrifice, the embodying of national pride and honour; it supports the claim that Palestinian women are writing ‘the history of their liberation with their blood’ (Al-Akhbar 2002). For example, Andaleeb Takatkeh, a young West Bank woman who killed herself in 2002, was shown on Arabic satellite television reading from a prepared statement in which she asserted: ‘I’ve chosen to say with my body what Arab leaders have failed to say’ (Hendawi 2002).

I would argue, however, that, far from being an aberration or someone in search of ‘cheap thrills’ or gender equality, the woman martyr is undertaking something far more profound. By her actions, she is indicating a refusal to accept the subjugation of her nation and the obliteration of her identity. I have tried to show in this article how an increasing number of Palestinian women are deciding to leave the kitchen and enter the battlefield. Although women accept their responsibilities as wives and mothers and are proud of these roles, in the extreme conditions of conflict and occupation, many realize that they also have a responsibility to the nation.  Their actions arise from a commitment to communal solidarity, something which women, as much as men, feel obliged to defend.


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1First presented at International Conference on Conflict, Terrorism and Society: ‘Putting people first; terrorism and human security’, Istanbul, November 2010.
2Interview, Birzeit University, 31 October 2007.
3The names of all women interviewed for this article have been disguised.
4Interview, Balata refugee camp, Nablus, 16 June 2007.
5Interview, Ramallah, 31 October 2007.
6Interview, Hebron, 4 November 2007.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.